I am sitting in Cleveland, Ohio at the Emerald Cities Community Engagement Summit. I am listening to labor and community organizations from several American cities talking about the struggles they are facing with unemployment and the violence that poverty is creating in their communities.
A plumber from the Building and Construction Trades stands up and talks about what is at stake with plummeting employment among union members: “I get very emotional about labor. I had nothing. I was a bad boy. I got dragged into a union hall and my life changed. I want that for everyone who needs that.” He is worried that the next generation will not have that.
It causes me to think about the generations and generational tasks. What is the generational task now? With that question, I am not thinking about a particular demographic segment. I am thinking about this historical moment.
At this meeting, we are talking about the vast changes coming in how we live and how we organize cities as a result of climate change, which is right up our alley at CoLab. We say all the time that much about life in cities is soon to change. The changes will be as big as the Industrial Revolution. We say that the norms and standards and patterns for climate adaptation will be set now, and we think about how low-income and communities of color can prepare to meaningfully shape this moment so the future will be more equitable.
This reminds me of the pivotal points in United States history when everything was about to change and the norms, patterns and standards were set — the Industrial Revolution, but also the Spanish-American War, the Civil War and Reconstruction. I know that these are all very different kinds of historical turning points with vastly different dynamics, time frames and processes. But stick with me for a minute.
Here is what’s interesting: Guadalupe Hidalgo, the treaty that ended the Spanish American war, led to the U.S. annexation of more than 30% of Mexican land mass and depriving vast numbers of Mexicans of their cultural patrimony, language and nationhood. Post-Civil War Reconstruction and its programs to rapidly raise newly-emancipated slaves’ living conditions, abruptly ended when the Hayes-Tilden Compromise returned governance to the slavocracy and established racial norms for the entire country that continue violently to trap generations of African Americans in segregation, second-class citizenship, and poverty.
But the Industrial Revolution was different. It was different because a group of human beings saw that a dismal future was emerging for society and they organized themselves to change the norms, standards and patterns that would relegate generations to misery. Instead, they built a labor movement and that movement created, among other things, weekends. It also created safe working conditions, an end to child labor, decent wages and more. I focus on weekends to highlight the fact that an arrangement now considered an inalienable part of American life was once a sharply contested political demand by a beleaguered group of revolutionaries. Those revolutionaries stepped up and took on the generational task of defining the norms and standards for how industrial societies would be organized.
Imagine how our lives would be if there had not been a labor movement. Now imagine how our lives will be if we do not figure out now how to create fair norms and standards for the emerging green economy. Starkly put, either we have a world in which vast numbers of people live in energy poverty in dirty, sick communities battered by climate disaster in which the natural world is dying, or we have a proliferation of healthy, green productive and socially inclusive communities in which our collective efforts to care for the natural world are producing widespread wealth and well-being.
There are infinite possible permutations of the worst and best-case scenarios. The only thing we can know for sure is that we are that group of human beings who see a dismal future emerging but have the wherewithal to organize and decide a different and better future for ourselves.
Dayna Cunningham, Executive Director of CoLab, wrote this post live from the Emerald Cities Engagement Summit in Cleveland, Ohio on November 19th, 2010.